Fish and some marvellous chips

As the mother of 2 boys, when my eldest son picked up a trumpet and we realised how much he loved playing, we knew that the next step was finding a band for him to play in. Playing with others is what music is all about. The hard graft of practising every day enables you to come together with others and belong to a team. A team in which everyone works together and laughs through the difficult bits, cheers you on in a solo and where the sum is so much greater than the parts. Once we’d started asking around, one name kept popping up – Amersham Band.

Started 175 years ago as a village band, it’s seen a fair amount of history and is a huge part of the community. You’ll see the band pop up at most community events including at the memorial gardens where it plays every summer. Rehearsing in a tiny church hall on the outskirts of the town, the band is known for its friendliness and inclusivity. You belong to the ‘AmBand Family’ everyone tells me, even when you move away or even give up playing. It’s truly a community group and the warmest most welcoming bunch you’ll find anywhere.

I ask euphonium player Garry why he comes every week to this tiny church hall for band. ‘I just love music’ he explains to me. ‘Thursday, band night, is the highlight of the week for me. However bad a week it’s been, it just goes out of the window and I always leave feel really happy and positive.’

So is Friday morning a bit miserable for Garry? ‘No! I’m still on a high from Thursday night! Everyone at work always says I’m always grinning on Fridays’

As I look around the room with people almost sitting on each others laps to get in, I see a spectacular age range, with the youngest age 7 sitting next to the eldest, a lady in her 70s having a good old chin wag… Everyone is chatting nineteen to the dozen. Age and social standing are beautifully irrelevant in this room. All that matters to them is the love of music.

‘Encouraging the kids and seeing their faces when they’re enjoying it is the best thing’  Caroline smiles. A member of the band for 35 years, Caroline initially came along to band to hear her husband play and once went on tour with them as supporter  ‘then the MD finally said to me that if I wanted to come back again, I had to learn an instrument and come back as a player . So I did! I had never played a brass instrument before. The MD gave me a couple of lessons and I just joined the band and sat next to someone who knew what they were doing and learnt gradually that way. It has a great feeling of inclusivity, it’s just ‘come and have a go’ and if you can’t play, just sit next to someone and feel part of it. That’s how you learn.’

But 9 years ago a little dynamite was thrown into the mix when West End trombonist Paul Fisher was invited to take over as MD of the band. ‘Fish’ as he’s affectionately known grew up in the brass band world ‘ I’m a 3rd generation Salvation Army bander so it’s all I really know’ he explains.  I asked him what was it like when he took over. ‘It started with 18 people , we had a little beginner group but then that grew too big . Eventually we created the community band and then we needed another band for the little ones too and so Brass Roots was born. It grew just by word of mouth. I think because we make it fun, we’re enthusiastic and it’s a bit of laugh – you’ve got to have a bit of laugh haven’t you?’ He grins. And indeed as I look around at the rehearsal about to begin, there are people waving, laughing, joking and hugging each other like long lost friends. ‘We all just have a good time. I care passionately about it being as good as it can be but you have to do it with the right mentality and make sure people are enjoying it.’ Fish smiles.  ‘My daughters are in it and they love it. One of  them has done an hour a day practice this week in preparation for the competition – that’s a first! They’ve got dad’s competitive edge…’

Last autumn the main Amersham Band were placed 7th in the national finals 2nd section. ‘Amersham Band were are the bottom of the 4th section and now we’re spending our first year in the first section’ Fish tells me proudly. ‘And now the community band are in the 4th section where the main band was when I first came 8 years ago!’

I ask Caroline what is behind this momentum.

‘Fish’s enthusiasm in music and a great backup team.’ She replies firmly. ‘On the committee, across the board, everyone brings different skills which can gel together to make a really good backup team so that Fish can do what he needs to do without having to worry about how to run the band. That’s the key.’

So what’s next in these exciting times for the band?

‘We’ve completely outgrown our practice facilities which have been amazing for many years but now we have the opportunity to create something really exciting in the town’ Caroline explains.

In a sterling group effort the committee and the members of the band have raised support and money to build a new band room which can fit in the burgeoning numbers of people who want to come and join the fun.

Fish and his daughters getting their hands dirty preparing the land...

‘When we first started, we saw a building on the market and we thought ‘oh we can buy that!’ But we didn’t have any money so we were a bit naive…’ laughs Fish.  ‘We were outbid but then we found a piece of land in Old Amersham and applied for planning permission. It took a long time, we had to get lots of local support.’

Was that support difficult to get?

‘We’ve been amazed actually how much local support there’s been.The band is well loved in the town and 240 people wrote letters to the council to support our planning application – some whom we didn’t even know!’

And it’s all hands on deck, with not just the committee but all the members of all three bands helping raise funds. From endless funding applications to busking carols at the tube stations and quiz nights, their energy is apparently endless for this wonderful goal. What will the new hall meant to the band members? ‘I can’t wait’ says one little boy. ‘It is very squashed in here and so loud when we all play. With the new hall we can fit everyone who wants to come in. My friends will be able to come and play as well!’

With the project 50% funded already, they’ve started on the ground work of preparing the site. ‘We’ve got the land and we’ve started doing things there like taking ivy off trees and gateposts and we’re making sure we’re conserving everything which needs to be conserved on the plot’ Fish tells me showing me a picture of himself and his daughters looking very muddy and proud as they clear ivy from the fence and a new sign is erected announcing the new home for the band.

‘The next thing is building our entry into the land then the building can go up.’

What will be in the building itself?

‘It’s going to be incredible’ beams Fish. ‘It’s a big hall with practice and teaching rooms, an office, library, recording facilities and there’s room for all the percussion which can be wheeled away into cupboards and then the place will be clear for people who want to use it for community music activities. It’s going to be the music hub for in and around Amersham.’ Indeed Buckinghamshire is rich in talented professional musicians who travel into London to work but lack a common place to collaborate and work together locally to help nurture the next generation of musicians. Professional musicians are already queueing up to work with Fish on this project, refreshed by his enthusiasm and sense of humour.

So who’s going to benefit from this centre? Is it, as is so often the case, just the children of those who can afford instruments?

‘We are lucky enough to have a bursary fund from a local housing association to help people from low income families be able to afford subs for the band or buy an instrument’  Caroline tells me. ‘We aim to be inclusive and get everyone involved whatever their social status. Money is thankfully now not a barrier to joining.’

I end up being squeezed out of the door as the rehearsal beings with not even standing room at the back. As I leave, Fish brings out a new piece for the Brass Roots beginners to try. The colour drains from their faces as they see the difficult rhythm he’s put in front of them.

‘Don’t panic’ grins Fish. ‘This rhythm is all about fish and chips. They look blankly at him before he sings  ‘I like fish and chips with mushy peeeeeeeas and sauce on’. The band erupts into laughter and immediately joins in playing the new rhythm.

Inspired. If you want to help create this exciting new music hub, please donate to their Just Giving page here

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